No Friends but the mountains: Documentary Filmmaker Kae Bahar’s eloquent call for Kurdish nationhood
by Claudia Moscovici
Documentary film director Kae Bahar’s No Friends but the Mountains is a must-see film for those interested in the issues of Kurdish Independence, the fallout from the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the plight of the Yazidis in the aftermath of these countries’ partial occupation by ISIS. This one and a half hour documentary, released in 2017, is available to watch internationally, including on Amazon Kindle. The film is not only educational—sometimes even overtly didactic–but also polemical, as it makes a compelling argument for Kurdish nationhood.
Right now, the Kurds are dispersed throughout several countries and regions. They comprise about 20 percent of the population in Turkey, 17 percent of Iraq, and 10 percent of Iran and Syria each. Moreover, as a result of oppression and civil war, close to 1.5 million Kurds have immigrated to Europe. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, when the latter disintegrated at the beginning of the twentieth-century, the Kurds, like the Armenians, were ethnic minorities that were perceived as a threat in Turkey. The nationalist Turkish movement “Young Turks” deported hundreds of thousands of Kurds. By the end of WWI, nearly 700,000 Kurds had been deported and more than half perished during this process of ethnic cleansing.
Not surprisingly given their history of oppression, the Kurds have been demanding their own country for decades. The Socialist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been most active in calling for national independence. While the PKK has been accused of terrorist activities, a more moderate party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP or PDK), under the leadership of President Masoud Barzani, pushes for a democratic and independent Kurdistan. Today, as the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming increasingly repressive and squelching moves for independence, the chances of Kurdish separation from Turkey look rather bleak.
The civil wars in Syria and Iraq, however, have created enough of a political vacuum for the creation of the independent region of Kurdistan. Comprising almost 20 percent of the Iraqi population, the Kurds suffered through a genocidal campaign run by Saddam Hussein, leading to mass murder, the use of poison gas on civilians, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Kurds. This genocidal policy led to the deaths of almost two hundred thousand Kurdish Iraqis. The UN condemned Hussein’s actions and established “safe havens” for Kurdish civilians in 1991 in Northern Iraq. When Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime was toppled, the Kurds celebrated the fall of the tyrant and welcomed American troops in the area. The Kurdish military forces, called the Peshmerga (literally meaning “before death” or “those who face death”), expanded their control over part of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, with a population of almost six million Kurds. Once ISIS took control over large parts of Iraq and Syria, the Peshmerga forces, remarkably comprising of both male and female soldiers, have been a crucial force in pushing back the terrorist organization and helping the resistance movements regain control of large parts of these countries. The Kurds have also been a source of aid to the Yazidis, a minority group in Iraq and Syria who have been targeted by ISIS for murder, pillage and—horrifically—the kidnapping, rape and sexual slavery of thousands of young women and girls. In fact, Bahar’s documentary features a scene where the Peshmerga help a group of Yazidis, comprised mostly of women and children, who managed to flee ISIS into the mountains populated by the Kurds. The scene is one of the most moving of the documentary: as very young children are crying from hunger and thirst, we see the Peshmerga soldiers, after doing a necessary security check, bring them life-saving vegetables, flatbread and water.
The title of this documentary says a lot. With “No friends but the mountains”, the Kurds have suffered oppression in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Without their own nation, they are, like the Jews were for centuries, at the mercy of their host countries, where they are usually oppressed minorities. Showing the Kurds as a peaceful people who have even helped other suffering minority groups, like the Yazidis, Bahar makes a compelling humanitarian and political argument for Kurdish nationhood. This would grant the Kurds more international protection and legitimacy.
I think there’s no question that, morally, the Kurds deserve a nation of their own. The question I have after seeing this thought-provoking documentary is pragmatic: namely, is this the right time to assert the Kurds’ right to nationhood? As older nation-states in the Middle East—Iraq, Syria, and Libya—have been shaken by violent upheavals since 2011 from which they haven’t yet recovered, what would happen if Kurdistan created its own nation? Would it fall prey to the same upheavals or, as Bahar implies, would it be a stabilizing force in the area? Moreover, it seems that, in Turkey, Erdogan continues to veer towards increasingly repressive measures towards his own people and especially towards Kurdish separatist groups. No doubt, he would feel extremely threatened by the state of Kurdistan. What would happen to the Kurds in Turkey? Would they fall victim to increased oppression or even ethnic cleansing once again? It’s difficult to answer these questions in the abstract. But clearly the Kurdish people and their leaders feel that the time is ripe to seize the moment and establish the nation-state they rightfully feel they deserve. Bahar’s film suggests it is now up to the international community to give them recognition and help them fulfill their political dreams.